The Blagger's Guide To...John le Carre

'He gets upset because the birds are too loud'

Sunday 27 March 2011 02:00

Don't tell Robert Harris, but Bloomsbury announced last week that it has acquired "the definitive biography" of John le Carré, to be written by Adam Sisman. Harris had long been thought of as le Carré's "inactive" biographer; many years ago, he "interviewed half a dozen people and wrote 20,000 words", before le Carré decreed that publication would have to wait until after his (le Carré's) death. Bloomsbury says that Le Carré will give Sisman access to his hitherto unseen private archive, but that "Sisman will have a free hand."

Sisman's biography won't be published until 2014, the 50th anniversary of le Carré's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. So, for those who can't wait, here is the Blagger's Guide.

Graham Greene described The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, as "the best spy story I ever read". Philip Roth called A Perfect Spy "the best English novel since the war". However, le Carré does not allow his novels to be entered for any prizes.

He has written 22 novels, more than a dozen of which have been adapted for film, TV and radio. In a 2008 interview for BBC4, he said that his best novels are: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Tailor of Panama; and The Constant Gardener. His most famous character, George Smiley, is now retired.

His real name is David Cornwell, born in 1931 in Poole, Dorset. He attended Sherborne public school, studied languages at the University of Berne, and completed his education at Oxford. His national service was spent in Austria with the Army's intelligence corps, and while at Oxford he infiltrated far-left groups for MI5. He became a full-time agent in 1958, after teaching French and German at Eton, then transferred to MI6. His career was cut short by the exposure of Kim Philby, and by the exposure of himself as the author of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

His father was a well-known conman, and his mother left home when he was five. He and his second wife Jane own a mile of cliffs. His son is the writer Nick Harkaway (a surname copied from a fictional hero that he found in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable), whose first novel was published in 2008. Harkaway has described the difference in their writing styles: "He wakes up so early that it's practically night and he's written a vast quantity by 10.30am. He uses a pen – he's a Luddite! I work at a computer, in a sort of flamboyant haze. I love having noise around me and much of The Gone-Away World [Harkaway's first novel] was written in cafés and pubs. He writes in a room at the end of a cliff [in St Buryan, Cornwall] and gets upset because the birds are too loud."

Le Carré doesn't think much of George W Bush or Tony Blair. Bush, he said in 2001, "has successfully defecated on the most sacred elements of the Atlantic alliance".

Adam Sisman had better write quickly, or his biography will be out of date before it is published. Le Carré recently offered his entire literary archive to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and has published approximately one novel every two years since 1961. The most recent to date was Our Kind of Traitor, published by Penguin in 2010.

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